Scavengers scour ship's cargo in treasure hunt on the beach

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Two men tossed a coin for the rights to a brand new BMW motorbike while nearby a lady collected carpet to decorate her home.

Scavengers were enjoying a veritable treasure hunt in Devon yesterday as the cargo of the stricken MSC Napoli bobbed ashore to be rifled through with delight.

As anti-pollution experts fought to avert an ecological disaster and salvage workers prepared to pump 3,500 tons of oil from the heavily listing vessel, opportunists took advantage of its escaped cargo.

The 62,000-tonne ship, carrying 2,394 containers including 165 with hazardous chemicals, had to be deliberately run aground near Sidmouth last week when it developed a severe structural failure.

Yesterday, the coastguard estimated that it had lost 200 tons of oil as well as 103 containers, 76 of which have now been retrieved. A sheen of oil had spread four miles but was dissipating while there were early reports of 700 stricken birds.

Ignoring warnings that some of the lost containers held toxic liquids, hundreds flooded to the picturesque holiday spot to nose through the lost goods, insisting ­ as they stuffed their plastic bags ­ that they would do the legal thing and report their find to the receiver within 28 days.

In scenes reminiscent of the Ealing comedy Whisky Galore! ­ when Scottish islanders helped themselves to thousands of cases from a sunken ship ­ people were rooting through an eclectic array of goods including wine, women's shoes, beauty creams, nappies, steering wheels and even Bibles. Most poignantly the cargo also included personal possessions of people moving home internationally.

Sophia Exelby, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the " receiver of wreck", warned that failure to report any goods was tantamount to stealing and could result in a fine of up to £2,500.

The wreck owners still legally possessed anything washed ashore, she explained, and were arranging for private security to guard the goods before their own recovery operation could get under way.

They requested scavengers stay away but few appeared dissuaded.

"On Sunday evening the jungle drums were beating so I went down to the beach around 8pm and it was a scene of bedlam," explained Gareth Topping, who had nabbed one of more than a dozen £15,000 motorbikes on shore.

"There were containers and debris everywhere and people going from container to container seeing what was in each one."

Mr Topping said he had completed one of the forms being handed out by police and coastguards, and would hand back his prize if asked.

The police attempted to prevent containers being broken open and closed off approach roads but scavengers simply parked their cars in country lanes and walked the last mile.

While the focus of the activities was the pebble crescent of Branscombe beach, already reports were coming in of containers washing up as far away as Dorset.

Hector Blair, who laid claim to one motorbike before losing a second on the toss of a coin to a rival, said: "There's lots of things still down there on the beach, including car parts, dog biscuits and nappies.

"It's fairly good natured. I think people are more concerned about the damage from the oil than the debris from the ship."

One local woman, in a part of the country famous through the centuries for profiting from the bad luck of hapless sailors, said: "People should be able to be allowed to take what they like. It is clearing up the beach, and it is part of the beach culture."

And bounty advertised as beingfrom the Napoli was already appearing on internet auction site last night, with the first item on offer: a BMW steering wheel airbag.

A week-long operation to pump 3,500 tons of fuel oil from the ship was expected to start today. Once it is completed, barges and cranes will be brought in to offload containers with chemicals first and then the rest of the cargo.

There were fears last night that if the wind changed direction, more containers could be lost.

However, the coastguard said it had now confirmed that the leaked fuel had come from the ship's own engine space rather than the much larger reserves being carried on board and no fresh oil had been spotted in the water.

"Salvage equipment has now been transferred on to the vessel so that pumping arrangements can be configured at first light [Tuesday]," the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said.

Booms have been put up in the River Axe and River Brit to prevent any fuel spreading. Last night the RSPB said more than 600 seabirds had been stricken by the oil, while the RSPCA said more than 80 guillemots were being cleaned.

Tim Thomas, of the RSPCA, said: "We already havereports of several found dead on the beach."

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